When I was asked to write about my perception of the Queen Bee Syndrome, my very first thought was of the movie The Devil Wears Prada. In it, Meryl Streep plays a sharp-tongued CEO who ruthlessly critiques and overworks her assistant, a young woman early in her career.
Queen Bee Syndrome is when high-ranking women in positions of authority treat the women who work below them more critically than their male-presenting counterparts.
Research would suggest, however, that it doesn’t only occur in leadership positions, but across all domains of employment. (Note: Unsurprisingly, there is no term for the male version of this behavior pattern — although it certainly occurs.)
Let me start with a scenario:
Leslie is hired for a corporate entry position. Needless to say, she is excited and yet overwhelmed. Her main objective is to be successful and feel “heard” in her position. She notices that no one is taking a special interest in her, so she seeks out the mentorship of a woman within her organization. Her belief is that this relationship will give her the insight and support she needs to learn the ropes at her company and move up the corporate ladder.
She becomes discouraged as her mentor engages in seemingly casual microaggressions and is often more critical than her male supervisors of Leslie’s work and ideas. The mentee feels frustrated and confused, and when she asks her would-be mentor for feedback, she is told that she is being “too emotional, and should toughen up if she wants to survive in her job.”
After a period of navigating severe imposter syndrome, Leslie gives up and leaves her dream job feeling like she must be incompetent if her Mentor doesn’t approve of her and her work.
At first glance we could say that it just wasn’t a good personality match that Leslie was not motivated or “fitting into corporate culture.” Maybe the Mentor felt that it was her role to give Leslie the same firsthand experiences she herself had to overcome to make it in leadership.
But no matter how we look at it, it is never a good outcome when a new and excited recruit becomes dejected and decides to leave.
Working and living in a paternalistic society has often forced women to choose sides: lose their emotions and strive for perfection in a society that demonizes anything that looks or feels feminine, or embrace their vulnerable human messiness and be seen to “fail.”
LTHJ Global engages in company caucusing groups (safe spaces for groups to unpack and explore diverse experiences within their own affinity groups — for example, all women, all people of color, all White people, etc.). One of the most consistent themes that women express in these spaces is the cultural conditioning that they have to be “masculine” in order to succeed. Not that they have to be men, but that emotionality and other “feminine” characteristics are often seen as being weak. In the past, this concept showed up in the ways that female leaders dressed to deflect from their sexuality by wearing “power suits.”
The irony is that as women turn toward what are considered to be negative emotional expressions such as anger, they are not treated in the same ways their male-presenting counterparts are for showing that same anger.
Another component that is in play is female competition, which starts from the playground. This occurs when little girls are deciding who can be in their sister circle. Girls who are smart are often categorized as a “know-it-all”; girls who advocate for themselves are “bossy”; cute girls with curves are often ostracized because of jealousy and potentially being capable of stealing attention.
This process doesn’t stop in adolescence, and carries over into adulthood where the stakes are not just about dating, but also about positions, titles and money. (All are simply different forms of perceived security.)
Therapeutically, this dilemma is rooted in the ways patriarchy pits women against other women, encouraging women to compare themselves to others without appreciating their own uniqueness.
Here are 3 things I encourage leaders to think about as they confront “Queen Bee Syndrome” in their work and life:
1. When questioning this notion of, “I made it to where I’m because I’m no-nonsense,” ask:
Did you have to give up your sense of emotion or communal belonging?
Consider that many women in leadership have had to fight their way to the top and therefore feel that their female-presenting subordinates need to be “super competent” in order to be successful.
2. Spend time with these questions:
- Is there enough room at the top for everyone?
- What can agencies do to create an atmosphere where all can exceed regardless of age, race or sexual identity?
- What can agencies, corporations and organizations do to provide an equitable and inclusive playing field for all who are seeking leadership roles?
3. While individual healing for women occurs on the personal “I” level, it is the “We” work of inclusive & equitable organizational design that makes larger anti-oppression actions possible.
While it is vital for women to recognize the power of the camaraderie they share, the larger structural healing takes place at the organizational level as leaders of organizations recognize and adapt for the unique struggles and strengths of the women in their companies and organizations.
As we create our New Normals at workplaces around the globe, there are aspects that should not be part of the new normal. The notion of women (in any capacity) not being able to support their counterparts for fear of stunting their professional growth, or being viewed as emotionally challenged, must be eradicated.
As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright said: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
On the other hand, there is a special power that blossoms when women are allowed to shine and encourage others to do the same without apology.
Monthly Anti-oppression Leadership Community: Leadership Roundtable
Quiz: Are You A Queen Bee?
For small businesses & nonprofits: DEI Cohort
For larger organizations: End-to-end DEI Organizational Design